In terms of what’s currently in vogue, no branch of metal has wandered further from its roots than doom. As an illustration to that point, if one were to poll a random group of metal fans in 2018 about favorite doom records—which, fittingly enough, a Last Rites delegate has recently done—the results will, without fail, toss back entries that have very little to do with St. Vitus, Trouble, Pentagram, Candlemass, et al.
Is that at all significant? Probably not. Outside of an anomalous stretch approximately twelve years ago, classic doom was never really designed to be the apple of the greater public’s eye. Doom forever endures on the fringe, being played in rickety clubs in front of rickety folks who remain steadfast because of the off-shoot’s huge heart. Doom is heavy metal’s bonafide psalm: downtrodden litanies for life’s many misfortunes with a time-tested hitch to spirituality, but mostly due to an innate sense of redemption and faith in absolution. In a world where contrition forever and inescapably looms, doom seizes suffering with an addict’s grip that offers hope with equal conviction. Every doper, moper, pill-popper, boozer, sinner, loser, cheater, cynic or any other variety of wretch in-between are eternally welcome under doom’s warm embrace.
Nevertheless, it ain’t for everyone, by virtue of the fact that the dusty, blues-based strut that’s so often attached to classic doom isn’t always chic. Timeless, for certain, but not always chic. Thus, this classic interpretation often becomes associated with oldsters pounding Schlitz in the garage and musing over the 80s. Metal for yo mama; doom for ol’ dad.
Complicating matters further, we haven’t really experienced a ton of traditional doom in recent months (years?) prominent enough to award widespread commendation—see the above concerning living on the outskirts. Plenty try, and the stripped design might seem easy to play on the surface, but it’s not so easy to pull off…gigantically. Australia gets a partial pass because of a devotion to the version forged by Reverend Bizarre in the early 2000s that’s resulted in a twisted magic circle of nutters outfitting bands such as Lucifer’s Fall, Solemn Ceremony, Dire Fate and Rote Mare. But elsewhere, and particularly here in the U.S.—a nook responsible for one of doom’s most significant movements: The Maryland sound—bands have spent the better part of the last decade exploring sludgier, more gothic, or decidedly progressive grounds.
Thanks be unto Iommi, we still have Pale Divine.
With full-length number five, the band hones, trims and diversifies. None of the songs on Pale Divine stretch into 10-minutes or beyond, which serves them well because the record also features some of the fastest material to date. In truth, Pale Divine has never been afraid to challenge the assumption that all doom has to be slower than gramps in traffic, but a song like “Chemical Decline” pays as much homage to early 80s Iron Maiden at its midpoint as it does bluesy proto-doom at its onset. Similarly, the opening “Spinning Wheel” hits with a husky doom strut at the jump, but it doubles the clip and even throws (gasp!) growled vocals into the backdrop by the 3:30 mark.
A few other nods find their way into the picture as well, intentional or not. It’s all still very “Pale Divine,” because that notably cool touch provided by Darin McCloskey behind the kit has been there since day one, and so has the anchoring presence of Greg Diener’s absurdly soulful voice and his knack for channeling all things Iommi Epiphone SG for every riff and solo. But something about the more intimate way the record is produced—almost as if the band is sitting right in the room with you—that makes it feel like an even stronger allegiance to the raw blues-based foundation that fed Hellhound Records in the late 80s/early 90s is present. Asylum-era Unorthodox jumps around the corners when things are struttin’ a little quicker, and that positively filthy riff that kicks off “So Low” is not only the motherfuckin’ doomiest thing you’ll hear all year, it channels the late/great Alfred Morris III and Iron Man with a sorcerer’s touch.
The Sleep-y stoner angle is still present, too—most notably on the album’s longest jam, “Shades of Blue,” which gives bassist Ron McGinnis more room to swing as it exhales a level of smoke that would make any red-eyed dragon proud. There’s even a whiff of Valkyrie’s breezy melody attached to “Bleeding Soul,” a song that finds Diener lighting up the fretboard with busy leads for what feels like the entire song.
Again, it’s important to note that none of these fragments that call up other bands ever feels like a photocopy, but rather salutes to most every era of classic doom, plus a couple additional heavy angles, all done through a lens that’s expressly Pale Divine. This record summarily offers up everything a fan obsessed with the style craves: big choruses, huge riffs and more leads than an Uli Jon Roth tribute weekend, and it does so while portraying all of doom’s requisite torments—payin’ dues, searchin’ for significance, junkie life, depression, suffering slick sonsabitches, and even… Therianthropy? The band even reached back in time to the Thunder Perfect Mind days to grab their old logo, which looks great sitting atop Brad Moore‘s wild cover art.
Despite being very intentionally tied to a classic approach, Pale Divine ends up feeling fresh simply because it’s U.S. doom that doesn’t summon slowed-down West Coast sludge or some shade of Pallbearer. It pairs perfectly with noteworthy 2018 releases from fellow countrymen The Skull (featuring ex-members of Trouble, Eric Wagner and Ron Holzner) and Witch Mountain, and it’s precisely the sort of release that makes it clear that the old ways will never be forgotten, even if they aren’t always capturing the glossy headlines.
True-blue doom for the truly doomed.